June 2010

Niranjana Iyer


An Interview with Sheena Iyengar

If Sheena Iyengarís name seems familiar, itís probably because you read about her research on consumer choice work in Malcolm Gladwellís Blink. Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, now has her own book out. The Art of Choosing deals with choice in all its aspects, across fields as varied as music, art, and medicine, and draws on everything from pop culture to brain imaging technology. Iyengar also mines her personal life for this book, and her choices -- to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man from outside her religion, to use sighted language although she is blind -- are at least as fascinating as her research findings.

I interviewed Iyengar via email and telephone. We talked about her writing and her research, and whether an expert on choice might ever toss a coin.

Can you tell us about the conception of, and the motivation behind, this book?

This book looks at three questions: Why do we choose -- where does choice get its power from? How do we make choices -- what are the various factors that influence how and what we choose? Given all this, how can we choose better?†

Iíve written a lot of academic papers, and the only people who read those are academics. As an academic, you almost have an obligation to take your knowledge and disseminate it. So I felt that I should try and write a book for everyone. Of course, the probability of failing when you try to write a book for everyone is the highest. But I figured I should take that risk -- otherwise, why write it?

Malcolm Gladwell was the one who encouraged me, and he gave me some very good advice.† He said you really need to tell a story, and use that story to unveil your idea. That works for him, to have each chapter about one story. But I essentially did the opposite, I tried to tell a story about an idea in every chapter. So I was influenced by his advice, but I used it in a different way. But Malcolm writes much much much better [than I do]. Iím amazed at how effortlessly he writes, and if I could write that way, Iíd be thrilled.

One of my major a-ha moments after reading this book was the realization that our capacity for self-delusion is infinite. We make poor choices, and then cherry-pick data to further support our (wrong) decisions. Is there truly any hope for us to wise up?

Yes. Ninety percent of the time, we should use reasoned analysis. When we do, though, we still need to really watch out for those decision-making biases that stem from our gut. So, ask yourself, why do I want this? Why am I thinking this way? Did I consider the alternatives? Even when weíre doing a reasoned analysis of the options, our gut emotions can end up playing a role in the process if weíre not careful.

If reasoned analysis works ninety percent of the time, are there occasions when it might actually work to go with our gut?

Thatís a great question. Your gut answers the question ďHow do I feel about this right now?Ē Thatís the only question it answers. It doesnít answer the question ďHow am I going to feel about this tomorrow?Ē Thatís its inherent limitation.

Your reason enables you to do the pros and cons analysis. Provided you are not allowing your biases to get involved, your reason answers the question of what you should want, what would be good for you, in the future or even at the present moment. But it doesnít tell you what would make you happy. The question we want answered, and what we donít have the tools to answer, is ďWhat would make us happy tomorrow?Ē†

So I suppose you need a third thing here. You have to stop looking inside, and you have to start looking outside. In addition to your gut and your reason, you have to look around and see what other people are doing, see who is happy. And because weíre not as different from other people as we think we are, chances are, weíll be happy if they are happy. Thatís really the three-step process for deciding something important in your life. So if you are trying to decide which job offer to accept, your gut might tell you which one you like, your reason tells you which one you should like, and looking at other people and seeing who is happy in job X, and what it is that theyíre happy with -- all this will tell you which job will make you happier.

Iíve always thought I was different. Really. But your studies show very few people are truly unique; I now realize Iím actually part of the vast herd of ďthose who think they are different.Ē

Itís true that studies (my own and othersí) have shown that people are often not as unique relative to others as they might believe themselves to be. But thatís not necessarily something to be disheartened about. Thereís comfort in the fact that in many ways we are similar to other people; it means we can learn from each otherís experiences.

Sheena, do you ever just toss a coin?

Sure, I regularly toss a coin when Iím picking the nail polish to put on my nails, or what to order from a restaurant menu, for example. Or I ask people to just choose something for me. I tend to be really choosy about when I choose, and Iím constantly asking myself: ďHow much choice do I really need? Is it really worth it to me to make this choice, or is it a distraction from my more important goals?Ē

Can we really be choosy choosers when it comes to branding? You mention in your book, for instance, that Lancomeís Mousse Makeup and Maybellineís Mousse Foundation are made in the same factory, are nearly identical in their composition, and that experts have detected no difference in their performance, but LíOreal, which owns both brands, sells the first at $37 and the other at $8.99. You cite several such examples of nearly identical products being branded and priced very differently. All this almost suggests to me that we consumers are often the dupes of these large corporations.

Are companies trying to manipulate us? Yes. Companies use branding to create differentiation when thereís very little actual difference because the market is so crowded.†

Should we worry about being manipulated? Only if itís in a domain thatís important to us. You need to decide whatís important to you, and that list canít be long. For those things, you really pull out everything, use your gut, reasoned analysis, gather information from other people. For other things, find the acceptable one. If that means youíre being manipulated, so be it.†

But companies need to give a lot more thought to how they should be branding in a more honest way. Itís good for the customer and for them -- they really donít need to add irrelevant options. One of the things they can sell to the customer is that every choice we offer really counts, that it is meaningfully different from other choices.

And I was wondering about the implications of publishing such findings in your book. As a person who is intimately connected with the business world, are you breaking any sort of taboo here, or is this just business as usual?† †††

There hasnít been any backlash from these companies -- they ignore the findings that they donít think are interesting or useful, I guess!

One of the most fascinating studies in your book mentions cultural scripts -- that people from collectivist cultures (such as China) prioritize the well-being of the community or family in their decision-making process, while those from individualist cultures (such as America) prioritize the individualís right to happiness. How do immigrants who move from one culture to another fare while making decisions? Does your own experience as the daughter of Sikh (Indian) parents in North America provide any insights into the latter?

I can only speak to my own experience here, but I did notice from a very young age the contrast between my experiences growing up as the daughter of Sikh immigrants, and my experiences in the American school system. As the daughter of Sikh immigrants, I spoke Punjabi at home, I ate Punjabi food, and I went to the Sikh temple on Friday night, Saturday night, and all day Sunday. I practiced the 5 ďKĒís, including never cutting my hair. I lived in a world in which the marriage of my parents and of the parentsí of all the other children at temple had been arranged, and our parents were heavily involved in all of our choices.†

At the same time, though, I was part of another world. I went to school in New York. There, everyone was supposed to decide for themselves how to dress, what they wanted and didnít want, what career they would pursue, and whom they would marry. These two worlds didnít just comprise two different languages, or two different sets of rules, but offered two entirely different narratives about how to live oneís life. The first emphasized the importance of knowing your duties and fulfilling your responsibilities. The second emphasized the importance of identifying and acting upon your personal preferences. They were both narratives about the role choice should play in our lives: what we can choose versus what is decided by destiny, who chooses, the guiding principles to use when you choose, and in turn, what to expect from the choice. Drawing upon my experiences in these two different worlds led me to many of the questions that Iíve endeavored to examine as part of my research.

Can these two narratives about different ways to live oneís life run in parallel? Or is conflict inevitable?

No, they run up against each other, and you have to find some form of reconciliation. Thatís why the narrative feeling becomes so salient to a bicultural person, because this conflict must be resolved. Some choose one or the other narrative, and some choose different narratives for different domains, and some create a new narrative for themselves. There is no one optimal path here. You have to judge if thereís a fit between the personís narrative and the choices they ultimately make -- if thereís a fit, itíll help them accomplish their goals. So the only way you can judge this narrative is through its functionality.†

Itís remarkable how your daily life provides so much material for your research -- everything from your husbandís iPhone purchase to your visit to the manicurist seems to flow into your work, to form the basis for a new juicy experiment.

Yes, this is true. I love the fact that thereís a synergy between everything I do, whether Iím in the office, traveling, or spending time with my family. Thatís what I most enjoy about studying choice.

Your previous writing has all been academic. Was it difficult to transition into writing for a popular audience?

Yes. I tried to keep ďIs it interesting?Ē as my criterion, but of course, that is very subjective. Inevitably, I wrote like an academic. I had a number of research assistants reading my work, telling me if it was boring. You know that New York Times article describing how I decorate my home using the consensus method? [Iyengar is blind, and her strategy of using consensus to make choices on matters dealing with visual appeal was described in detail in a profile in The New York Times.] I used a very similar method for writing, I got a lot of opinions, and of course, whenever you have a group of people, they inevitably disagree. My first rule of thumb was to try and get everybody to like it. The Matrix [Iyengar uses the blue pill/red pill scene from the film The Matrix to illustrate a theory about choice] really generated differing opinions, people either loved it or hated it. But I take every single opinion very seriously -- itís a big thing with me.

Youíve opted to use words like ďlookĒ and ďseeĒ in your writing. Could you tell me about your use of ďsighted languageĒ?

I donít know that itís something I strategically think about; itís really something I do automatically now. Using that style of language helps me better communicate in a very visually driven world.†

You've quoted Joan Didion and Sinclair Lewis, amongst others, in your book. Could you talk about your literary influences?

I tend to read a lot of popular nonfiction. Right now on my iPod I have Michael Lewisís new book [The Big Short], and War by Sebastian Junger. Iím inspired by Dan Gilbert [Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and the author of Stumbling on Happiness], heís my role model. I was an English minor as an undergraduate, and while I was in school, I really fell for the works of many of the classic poets: Yeats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Frost. I do love drawing on those kinds of works for my current research and writing. It works nicely, I think, because choice itself cuts across so many disciplinary boundaries. I actually tried my hand at creative writing and poetry as an undergrad, but I ended up realizing that creative writing wasnít the career for me.

Why was that?

I wrote some pretty bad stories as an undergrad. I had some crazy ideas. I remember one short story I wrote was about a table with a scarÖ dumbest story ever. I took a bunch of poetry coursesÖ I was pretty bad at that. I did seem to do well at essays though.

Do you think you might try other kinds of writing someday?

Who knows... I think there is a good book to be written out there about the relation between the blind and the sighted, but I donít know if I would ever know enough to write that well. Maybe when Iím older though. As an academic, you spend so much time in writing, and I am interested in writing, but I donít think I was ever meant to write a novel.

The book ideas that I would probably work on going forward are related to my research. A book on thinking globally -- we operate in an ever-changing globalized world. Another has to do with the psychology of money. How does money really affect us? Itís not just something we use to buy things for ourselves, but affects us in lots of different ways.

An astrologer has predicted that your book will ďfar exceed your expectations Has this forecast proved accurate, or is it too early to tell? And if it is/does prove accurate, might you, for all your expertise on choice, become a believer in pre-destination?

Does he have the ability to predict -- maybe, I donít know.† In the case of my book, I think itís too early to tell.

The appeal of astrology or discussions of faith and destiny is that it gives people comfort. Itís like reading the last page of a book, to know where youíre going. It does relieve you from some of the burden of choice -- destiny makes you adjust and deal with what is. So if you think of marriage in terms of destiny, most of your choices are around adjusting to your destiny, as opposed to saying ďthis is what I really want.Ē And I think there is some real beauty in that.†

But I think we need to balance this with choice. Thereís beauty to be gained from thinking about your life in terms of choice, because when things arenít going well, what we have is choice. Itís really the only thing we have that we can turn to, to possibly make a difference in our lives.